Johannesburg – The well-rested Stormers entertain travel-weary fellow South Africans the Sharks at Newlands Saturday in the second Super 15 semi-final.
Stormers enjoyed a bye last weekend after topping the southern hemisphere provincial championship table, while Sharks surprised title holders Queensland Reds 30-17 in their Brisbane backyard.
Victory for the Stormers at their 45,000-seat Cape Town fortress would secure a home final next weekend, while the Sharks would face the long journey to New Zealand for a clash with Waikato Chiefs or Canterbury Crusaders if they succeed.
The weekend off was timely for the Stormers, who needed to regroup after a poor performance in a 26-21 victory over lowly Melbourne Rebels that sealed top spot ahead of Chiefs.
The Stormers are renowned for defensive strength so it came as a shock that the Rebels crossed the try-line three times during the second half, and the South Africans breathed a collective sight of relief when the final whistle blew.
Coach Allister Coetzee has made two changes to his pack, with tighthead prop Brok Harris preferred to Frans Malherbe and fit-again Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth replacing De Kock Steenkamp.
Skipper and inside centre Jean de Villiers says the travel factor could work against the Sharks, but he expects another close encounter after his team won by three points in Cape Town and lost by five in Durban during the league season.
“Travelling will always be a factor but the Sharks are highly motivated after their win against the champions so they will arrive in Cape Town on a high,” the Springbok captain warned.
“The Sharks have quality players and their problem is who to leave out so if we do not pitch up this weekend, there will not be a final next weekend,” added the 31-year-old veteran of many Super Rugby battles.
Coetzee was equally wary of the Sharks: “They have made a massive step-up in physicality and that creates go-forward ball for them to impose themselves on the match.”
Sharks inside centre Paul Jordaan, one of three try-scorers against the Reds, has been ruled out by a hamstring injury, and his place goes to experienced former Central Cheetah Meyer Bosman.
New Zealand-born coach John Plumtree had to concede defeat in the battle to get versatile backline star Patrick Lambie fit, and fellow back Francois Steyn is ineligible because he rejoined the Sharks after the registration deadline.
Louis Ludik continues at fullback and France Test half-back Frederic Michalak, outstanding in general play and with his place kicking against Queensland, carries on as fly-half.
The battle of the back rows could have a major bearing on the outcome, with the Stormers using hooker Deon Fourie at No 8 in the continued absence of injured Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi and Rynhardt Elstadt on the flanks.
Opposing them will be back-in-form Springbok reserve No 8 Ryan Kankowski and loose forwards Marcell Coetzee, one of the finds of this Super 15 season, and skipper Keegan Daniel. – Sapa-AFP